Blog: One university’s act of remembrance

Cara Aitchison on how the University of St Mark & St John will honour fallen students and graduates

November 11, 2014

Source: Beata Aldridge/Shutterstock.com

The role of British colleges and universities in World War One, and the impact of the war upon students and staff, is often overlooked.

Many of the fallen were students or recent graduates. With the introduction of mandatory teaching qualifications, young men from teacher training colleges swelled the ranks of student soldiers in the Great War.

Today, on 11 November 2014, I will read a letter written to students 100 years earlier by H. Wesley Dennis, president of St Mark’s College in Chelsea.

The college was converted into the Second London General Hospital from 1914-19 and had, by 1October 1914, admitted over 220 injured men from the front.

Following the two minute silence at 11am, the reading of the letter - delivered to me by a WW1 messenger - will form the first scene in ‘Picking Up The Fallen’: an original performance by students of the University of St Mark & St John in Plymouth.

The letter ends with the wish of H. Wesley Dennis, “that we may meet again when wrong has been righted and a lasting and honourable peace secured”.

We will gather outside by the university’s war memorials, which were brought from London when England’s oldest teacher training college, the College of St John in Battersea (founded in 1838) and the College of St Mark in Chelsea (founded in 1840), relocated to Plymouth in 1973.

We will commemorate the 1,100 students from both colleges who served in the Great War, the losses from which forced the ‘Marjon’ merger of the two in 1923.

We will remember them in our 21st century way; an inter-disciplinary, research-led and performance-based approach to learning in creative arts, drama, history and literature.

The university’s archivist, Gil Fewings, has unearthed letters from students and alumni written during the Great War. She has organized teams of students, staff and community volunteers in ‘Operation Bottlepoppies’ making 1,100 poppies from metal bottle caps to form our own recycled field of remembrance.

The programme leader of our BA in acting, Kevin Johnson, has worked with students to create a performance from the letters, with each read against a continuous backdrop of a roll call of the 1,100 who served. He’s concerned that surnames beginning with ‘B’ will still be being read so far into the performance that we won’t reach then end of the list.

One of the students halfway down that list is Gerard Parker who studied at St Mark’s College from 1911-13 and was badly injured in WW1. Parker wrote from his convalescence hospital on 7 January 1916: “The past few weeks I have spent in novel reading… I came across a pleasant change in an out-of-the-way corner in the library here – Mansfield’s ‘Shakespeare’. This took me a long way back to English lectures in ‘B’ room”.

Another student, William J. Field, who studied from 1912-14 and was killed during the war, wrote in a letter home on 29 February 1916: “During the terrible blizzards and floods in November our brigade lost 300 drowned in trenches, so terrible was the rush of water from the hills”.

W.R. Mills, a student who studied at St Mark’s College, wrote of arriving at Ypres at the time of the third battle in 1917. “The city of Ypres is a sight one can never forget. Not a house remains standing, and all over hangs a stillness, and more dreadful still, a stench of death… The trenches are terrible, and dead men seem to be everywhere in all stages of decomposition.

“Today I was walking alongside a trench quite five miles behind the firing line, and in the trench was a Frenchman in an advanced state of decomposition; such things have, however, lost their horror now.”

The editor of St John’s College Yearbook for 1917 noted from his London base that “we look forward with unquenchable hope to a glorious resurrection of all that we prize most in life and liberty by their death for us”.

As Kevin briefs me for my performance, I think how grateful I am that my name begins with ‘A’, that my own poignant reference to remembrance will pass early in the performance and that I might just hold it together.

I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the fallen combined with heartbreak at the waste of life from the Colleges of St Mark and St John.

I’m grateful to the enduring legacy of the University of St Mark & St John and its Marjon tradition of ‘Picking Up The Fallen’, in serving others, in training the first black teacher in the UK, in widening participation, in social mobility and in welcoming wounded soldiers, now as then, back to education when others turned them away.

When the performance is over and we have planted our 1,100 bottlepoppies I will take the train to London, arriving late for the GuildHE annual conference.

Having seen ‘The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ under construction I will return to the Tower of London where, 100 years ago, many of the fallen from what is now Plymouth’s second university would have sworn an oath to the crown upon enlisting.

Today, ceramic poppies cover steel structures which were made in Plymouth’s Theatre Royal workshop and which will remind me of our own Operation Bottlepoppies, the wartime poets and Binyon’s concluding line of For the Fallen: ‘To the end, to the end, they remain’. 

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